Channel Partners

June 1, 1999

3 Min Read
FCC Approves Billing Standards

Posted: 06/1999

FCC Approves Billing Standards
By Kim Sunderland

Restraining itself from mandating specific rules, the Federal Communications Commission
(FCC) has issued general guidelines on the content and format of telephone bills.

In its truth-in-billing and billing format item (Common Carrier Docket No. 98-170), the
FCC April 15 approved a Report & Order and Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking
(FNPRM) that the federal agency hopes will ensure consumers get clear and accurate
information on their telephone bills. This order also is part of the commission’s
continuing efforts to decrease slamming–which is when a consumer’s long distance carrier
is changed without permission–and cramming, which occurs when a company adds fees that
weren’t ordered to consumers’ phone bills.

The FCC ordered telephone companies to revamp their monthly bills to describe all
charges completely and highlight any new company that may have added charges to the most
recent bill. Each company listed on the bill must be clearly identified, with a toll-free
number for consumers to call with complaints. The order also requires telcos to state
clearly which charges, if not paid, will result in termination of service.

"There are too many Americans who can’t figure out" who or what they’re
paying, FCC Chairman William E. Kennard said in support of the order during the
commission’s open meeting. The Common Carrier Bureau has updated its 1998 billing
complaints, which now top 60,000 for the year. "We cannot ignore these
complaints," Kennard added.

The only dissention at the meeting came from Commissioner Harold Furchtgott-Roth, who
said the government has no business "dictating what the truth is." He believes
the government should trust the marketplace to be truthful in its billing practices and
noted that many other industries don’t have "federally mandated bills."

Washington-based Competitive Telecommunications Association (CompTel), which represents
competitive telecom carriers and their suppliers, generally was pleased with the order.
But the group warned that the FCC’s attempt to force carriers to differentiate between
services that can and cannot be disconnected for failure to pay long distance charges
ultimately might confuse consumers.

"CompTel has always believed that the FCC should only adopt general guidelines to
ensure that telephone companies’ billing practices promote rather than undermine the
interests of consumers," says H. Russell Frisby Jr., president of CompTel.
"However, we are concerned that the new rules are unnecessarily burdensome on
competitive providers of direct billing services. Moreover, the requirement informing
consumers that their local service will not be compromised if they fail to fulfill their
payment obligations to long distance carriers could be an invitation to consumers to treat
those obligations cavalierly."

CompTel has suggested that the commission regulate only incumbent local exchange
carriers’ (ILECs’) billing practices. Many ILECs, in fact, already have begun revamping
their bills. Atlanta-based BellSouth Corp. and Hoffman Estates, Ill.-based Ameritech Corp.
this week issued statements explaining how they’ve upgraded and made their bills more

While not dissenting, the other commissioners did have questions about the order,
particularly about how it pertains to wireless carriers. The guidelines also require
wireless telephone companies to identify all service providers on their bills clearly and
list telephone numbers where each provider can be contacted. At the FCC meeting,
commissioners Gloria Tristani, Susan Ness and Michael Powell each questioned FCC staffers
on whether the ruling was appropriate for this segment of the agency.

Such concerns, FCC Common Carrier Bureau Chief Lawrence Strickling said, should get
worked out in the FNPRM, which, among other issues, seeks to determine whether wireless
firms also should be subject to the same provisions of the order.

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